Set in France’s City of Lights after the war to end all wars, A Moveable Feast offers us a glimpse into one of the most radical and exciting times in recent history. Paris’s streets saw women dressing as men; in unheated studios, artists creating masterpieces bedded whomever they pleased; and in the cafes, where people gathered to see and be seen, writers and poets lost themselves in the imagined world of their pen’s making. It was the Jazz Age, the era of the Lost Generation, and everywhere was ripe with passion, hunger, revolution and genius.

At once personal and delightfully wide-ranging, Hemingway’s Paris memoir of the 1920s chronicles both his struggles as an unproven writer in a new city and his experiences as a young husband and father, whilst at the same time citing as commonplace his meetings with the many literary figures, artists and creative minds that would become legendary in their own right.

Penned in the final years of Hemingway’s life and published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast has received a certain level of criticism for the harshness of its portrayals. So much so in fact that these are the alleged grounds on which the recently released (2009) ‘Restored Edition’ was compiled. Certainly, Hemingway makes no bones about voicing his feelings in the book – not that this is out of character for a man with such a fighting mentality. It is also true that by the time the book was written those who suffered most from his biting observations were no longer able to respond. However, for a writer who poured so much reality into his fiction -- and one who refused to base his characters too close to home for fear of irreparable offence -- perhaps this was the only time in which such an undertaking could be justifiably followed through. So, while Ford Madox Ford is described with great distaste as ‘breathing heavily through a heavy, stained mustache and holding himself as upright as an ambulatory, well clothed, up-ended hogshead’, Wyndham Lewis, ‘the nastiest man I’ve ever seen’ with ‘a face that reminded me of a frog’ fares just as badly. And yet, Ezra Pound emerges from the text as ’some sort of saint’, with the emotionally unsturdy, but ‘lovely painter’ Jules Pascin recalled in the brilliant light of a charismatic grin.

Whatever the truth behind Hemingway’s non-fiction memoir, its essence is not in the facts or dates misremembered because of age, illness, alcoholism or electroconvulsive shock therapy; it is not in the personal slights, sentimentality, indulgence, or even in the carefully crafted, adjective-free wit. What shines through all of the fighting talk, all of the painstaking construction, is a beautiful vulnerability: a superstitious side that is always ready to knock on wood.

Hemingway’s life was a constant blurring of fact and fiction, of writing one into the other; his speciality was to take something and make it his own, and that is what he has succeeded in doing here. These were his streets, and those were his cafes: that was, and will always remain, Hemingway’s Paris. Just like the meals he experienced along with his characters, when writing and empty in the Lilas, it is the bone-deep impressions of both the author and of the time itself that you are invited to feast upon. And what a glorious feast it is.

 

Other Reviews

New York Herald Tribune: The Paris sketches are absolutely controlled, far enough removed in time so that the scenes and characters are observed in tranquillity, and yet with astonishing immediacy -- his remarkable gift -- so that many have the hard brilliance of his best fiction

Sadie Jones: a short, perfect book... written with an almost miraculous and entirely deceptive simplicity... Each word on the page is underpinned by 20 words omitted. It's breathtaking.

Atlantic Monthly (June 1964):  a fable, not because the material in it is untrue, but because it has been so lovingly cherished and retraced by the author himself. The uneasy Hemingway at sixty-one fondly draws his portrait at twenty-two: strong, modest, loving, learning to write, steeling himself to write even though he does not sell... autobiography is not the place to look for the "truth" -- not if a talent like Ernest Hemingway's is writing it.